In March 2014, I was standing in the central square of my home city of Donetsk, in Eastern Ukraine. As I photographed people gathering under the Ukrainian flag, I couldn’t have imagined where my photojournalism journey would take me.
One image I captured that day rapidly became the most memorable picture of that pro-Ukrainian protest. In time, the yellow-and-blue flag became not just a symbol of a nation, but one of freedom as well – a freedom Ukraine is still protecting on frontlines and in trenches nine years later.
A week after this picture was taken, Ukrainian activist Dmytro Cherniavskyi was stabbed during a similar rally, and that is when it became clear for me – big changes are coming. However, I had no idea those changes would be later called “the war.”
After that first photo made such an impact, I continued to document what was happening around me. For The Globe and Mail, I captured the first moments of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February of 2022.
Often, photographers and editors differ on which pictures they find the most touching. However, this one of a little girl in purple, who stands in front of a destroyed apartment building in Kyiv, was a mutual choice. It captures the scale of the shock after the first Russian rocket attacks. And it’s clear from the image that there’s no safe space in Ukraine anymore.
Immediately after the Russian invasion began, Ukrainians had to choose whether to stay or flee. But as I soon learned, for some people, there wasn’t really a choice at all. Yana Vorobiova, from the northern city of Chernihiv, told me she was already fighting for the life of her two-year-old son, Nikita, who had been diagnosed with leukemia. Now, the war forced her to leave the country she loves for the chance to continue treating her child.
Since April 2014, atrocities committed by Russia have been discovered. The world witnessed them once again last year after Russian-occupied areas were liberated, such as Bucha and Hostomel, and later the cities of Izium and Kherson. As I spent long hours with investigators – who were excavating mass graves and makeshift cemeteries – discovering new detainment places and torture chambers across liberated territories became routine.
I photographed also average citizens who were both attempting to find out what happened to their relatives, and trying to forget the nightmares they’ve lived through.
War scars everyone – whether that’s psychological scars from witnessing death and destruction, or literal ones. Veteran Masi Nayyem was severely wounded in the eastern Donbas region last summer. I have photographed the Afghan-Ukrainian a few times – in hospital after he lost his eye, and later in his law office, where he fights for better conditions for other veterans.
“This too shall pass, and the pain will pass as well,” he has told me. “The question is what would be left behind.” He repeats this often, demonstrating the value of stoicism in wartime.
Late January 2023 marked eleven months since the full-scale invasion began. But the war in Ukraine has been going on for almost nine years. On January 20, Globe and Mail reporter Mark MacKinnon and I joined a group of Ukrainian volunteers as they searched battlefields on the border of Donetsk and Kharkiv regions to recover the bodies of fallen soldiers.
During their work, the volunteers – commonly named as Black Tulips – excavated the body of a fallen Russian soldier from a scorched armoured personnel carrier. It was a gesture of humanity – to return the body of the invader back home. Denys Sosnenko, a 22-year-old volunteer with us, died on a similar mission just a few days later.
This picture shows another find – a metal box containing a few kilograms of ash and a rusty knife, which were the only remains of another Russian soldier. For me, seeing it was a clear moment of understanding that nothing may remain of us except the photographic memories of an existential fight for a better future.
I took this photo on the road that connects a parking lot to the Polish-Ukrainian border in Medyka. It was February 25, 2022, and for two days the border had been flooded with crowds of people, all walking or driving in one direction – out of Ukraine.
Natasha was heading the other way. She walked very slowly, dragging her luggage behind her, her wheels bogged down by the damp surface. The ribbon in the sand she left behind was, to me, a reflection of her emotional state.
When I approached Natasha, her face was flooded in tears and she was unable to talk. I learned from her friend that she worked in Poland and was returning to Ukraine because she had two children, ages 12 and 14. They were on their own and she needed to take care of them.
During the first week of the war, tens of thousands of people from Ukraine arrived every day in Przemysl, Poland. Nearly all of them were white and Ukrainian citizens.
Globe and Mail reporter Paul Waldie and I had heard rumours that non-Ukrainians fleeing the war were being treated differently by border guards. We didn’t know how to confirm the story, but sometimes you just need to open your eyes.
One day, we noticed a bus parked at the side of the main road to the border. I could see a couple dozen people inside, and all of them were Black. We stepped onto the bus and I was struck by their depressed faces and weariness from so much travel.
Jemeal Jabateh, a 28-year-old student from Liberia, had been studying in Kyiv for three years. He told us that when he got to the Shehyni checkpoint, Ukrainian guards told him to stand in another line. “Every time we tried to cross, they told us to wait,” he said. “Then they let Ukrainians through. They kept us there a long time.”
After finally crossing, he was told to get on this bus. Neither he nor anyone else on board seemed sure where they were going or why they’d been separated from the other refugees. Most just wanted a WiFi connection so they could touch base with their loved ones.
“I like Ukraine. My friends in Ukraine were so kind to me. All my friends were white,” said Mr. Jabateh. “But I dislike the violence of the police. They are angry and the anger is on us. It’s crazy. It’s hard.”
Shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, I finished writing my book about the Second World War and its consequences. Over four years, I had dozens of conversations with elderly people who were children and teenagers during the war, and I attempted to capture their memories of that time. Each of them told me about the things they took with them, as well as the lifelong regret of the items they didn’t manage to bring. For the most part, these were family heirlooms.
Inspired by this, during the first week of Russia’s invasion, Paul Waldie and I asked 33 refugees standing outside a shelter in the Polish border town of Przemysl to share their stories with us, and to show us the precious things they couldn’t leave without.
Before telling us her story, Tatiana apologized for the soiled cuffs of her jacket, which I thought testified to how long and difficult her journey from Chernihiv must have been. She then told us that she hurriedly packed her suitcase and threw in her favourite dress and her best shoes. When she walked the final few kilometres to the Polish border, she stopped to pick up this pinecone. She carefully put it in a side pocket of her purse. “It’s a little piece of Ukraine that I’ll always carry with me,” she told us.
In the first week of the war, Paul Waldie and I started each day by checking the news out of Ukraine. We learned that many people had started taping pieces of paper to their car windows with the word “children” written in Ukrainian. It was an attempt by families to avoid being attacked as they sped out of the country.
One day we were driving on the highway near Rzeszow, not far from the Polish-Ukrainian border, when we passed a small black car that had one of the signs. There was a woman behind the wheel, a teenager in the passenger seat with a dog sitting between in her legs, his head on her lap. Two children sat in the back amid piles of luggage and their pet cat. When the mother, Tanya Salo, went to the bathroom with two of the children, four-year-old Fedir stayed in the car. He struck me as a child with the face of a more mature, worried adult.
We spoke with Ms. Salo for quite a while when she returned, and she told us how they’d had to say goodbye to her husband at the Polish-Ukrainian border. By law, adult men couldn’t leave the country. They were on their way to Gdansk, another six hours away, where they planned to stay with friends. They’d already travelled for hours from Kharkiv. She told us all of this between tears.
Easter was the first major religious holiday after the start of the war. At the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary church in Warsaw, Poland, worshippers began arriving at 5:30 a.m. on Easter Sunday. After the sanctuary was full, people spilled out onto the street, lining the sidewalks for blocks with their Easter baskets stuffed with bread, fruit and cakes. They huddled together for hours, careful not to stand on the roadway where cars and buses passed. There was an almost paralyzing silence, broken only by choral singing.
At the end of the mass, the crowds parted to make narrow paths for the priests, who spared no holy water as they showered the baskets and people’s heads. The water dripped from their hair, their foreheads, and their faces, and mixed with tears. It was an explosion of joy, for perhaps the first time in three months. Joy that they were here together in their community and with their compatriots. A great uplifting of joy, even if temporary for the many present whose families were still torn apart by war.
“The Russians have driven me from my home three times,” said Lali Dmitrieva. That included Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, and Mariupol in 2022. Along the way, she also lost three restaurants that she owned.
After being evacuated from Mariupol last April, she lived for several months in Warsaw, then moved to Dublin. Now she’s in Castlebar, on the west coast of Ireland, living in a hotel with 73 other refugees from Ukraine. She shares a room with her teenage son, along with a woman and her seven-year-old daughter. She can’t speak English and she can’t find a job. And she can’t do what she loves most: cooking for people. Frustrated that the hotel’s menu is so boring, she offered to cook for her fellow Ukrainians as a volunteer at no extra cost to the hotel. But her offer was rejected.
I followed her one day on her only regular activity, a daily half-hour walk through the streets of Castlebar. She stopped briefly at one point and turned her face toward the sun. At that moment I noticed, in her eyes, her strength and her hope.
Russia’s invasion has driven eight million people from their homes in Ukraine, causing those who flee to start over. Globe correspondent Paul Waldie and photographer Anna Liminowicz share their stories